Breaking Free of Artistic Labels

NORTHERN California sculptor Bruce Beasley has been making art for nearly 30 years. His works are exhibited internationally, and are included in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim, the National Gallery, as well as the Museums of Modern Art in both New York and Paris. His public-scale sculptures dot many impressive sites across the United States.

Beasley is hardly a newcomer. Nor is he an apologist for the classical modern tradition his work draws on.

"What we think of as modern art - art that uses as its main language line and shape - began in the very early 20th century, almost 100 years ago. It would be naive to propose that both life and art have not changed dramatically in that time.

"There is a whole arena of art being made today that uses concepts, politics, language, mass media, shock as subjects - it's powerful work that I respect and respond to," explains the artist. "But for me, qualities like form, color, shape, feeling are still the language of art."

Beasley is referring to a current school of thinking which holds that with all the urgent directives - cities burning, governments toppling, creative and personal censorship - art should touch our political and cultural experience in a way that metal triangles and squares cannot.

"My feeling is that I would rather make art that means something to me and live my politics," says Beasley who is an activist in his racially mixed Oakland, California, neighborhood.

His separation of art and issues is not steadfast. Beasley's piece called "Pillars of Cypress II" was recently inspired by the rescue efforts of blacks and whites who rushed to a collapsed section of San Francisco freeway in an effort to lift slabs of concrete off of victims.

Speaking with Beasley in his home and studio you get the sense that if he is anything he is more of a Renaissance man than a modernist. He is a self-taught scholar who voraciously masters diverse, even arcane knowledge for its own sake and for the sake of his art.

Some examples: Years back there were no methods available to sculptors for casting large-scale clear acrylics. So Beasley learned polymer chemistry and invented a casting system that remains in use. Though he makes such modern-looking sculptures, for decades he has been a serious scholar of the primitive cave paintings at Lascaux, France, visiting them yearly, lecturing and writing about them. And he uses advanced computer technology - similar to that employed in the aerospace industry - to design his sc ulptures.

In 1988, Beasley began the sculptures that have become his signature style. These works are massive collections of cubes and odd-shaped polygons that collide, fuse, interpenetrate, and rise and arch across space in complex designs. Anyone schooled or unschooled would look at this work and say, "Ah, that's the stuff they call modern art."

But there's a bit more to Beasley than that label. It is Beasley's ability to use line, shape, movement, and spatial tension to convey complex experiential and emotional states that makes his work more than pleasing arrangements of form.

In the large piece called "Break Out," a heavy-looking cluster of metal cubes seems hoisted at the sculpture's highest point, held aloft by two long and much less substantial polygons. By placing the heaviest-looking shapes at the highest point and adjusting every angle and plane to create the sense that this dense mass of metal has been propelled into the air, Beasley generates the physical and emotional experience of what we associate with breaking free.

Beasley says that what he is after in this piece is the timeless quality of freedom from constraint.

"At one time or another we've experienced breaking free from something that was holding us back - in personal, political, creative, professional, even physical arenas of our life.

"It's an experience that's been around for forever and across cultures, so my goal is to transmit it in as open-ended, language-free ways as possible."

If you are still not convinced that "modernist" is too pat a pigeon hole for this artist, consider that to accomplish his work he uses computer equipment so sophisticated it is not available outside of industry. Using his computer, Beasley calibrates every angle, the inclination of every plane of metal, each distribution of weight, each contour and color to achieve what he calls the perfect formal and emotional moment.

"I use the computer to try out spatial arrangements before I cast them in large-scale bronze. I could make hundreds and thousands of preliminary sketches before I got the combination of pushes and pulls, of angles and openings that conveyed the quality I was after in three dimensions. With the computer, I can generate, try, and eliminate hundreds of 3-D possibilities quickly. But the technology always serves the art. I use the computer to optimize the expressive potential.

"In fact, I guess if I had to tell you what school of art I most closely associate my work with, it would have to be the Abstract Expressionism of the '50s in New York. Like the New York School, I want to convey feelings, strong universal feelings in an abstract language that does not date or fossilize those feelings with specifics."

These sculptures make it clear that Beasley has absorbed modernism in all its guises, absorbed Expressionism past and present, added a Yankee love of science and high technology to come up with a handsome and feeling art that resembles many styles but ultimately holds its own.

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